Some movies have better intentions than results.

I wanted to like Don Cheadle’s labor of love, Miles Ahead. I am fascinated with Miles Davis and I respect Don Cheadle. Unlike some movie celebrities, this actor hides from public attention, refuses to grab headlines and makes films to articulate his passions and beliefs. The result is a stirring collection of performances in such films as Hotel Rwanda (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), Traffic and Crash.

Cheadle’s outstanding performance as Miles Davis is the best reason to see his film about Miles Davis. But co-writer Cheadle and director Cheadle let down actor Cheadle by permitting holes in the script and convention in the direction to undermine the power of the portrayal. As Cheadle creates complex layers of this legendary jazz musician, he knows precisely what buttons to push to make us believe in the demons behind this man’s behavior. But the script, with its focus on a couple of days in Davis’ life, fails to provide enough context to explain the significance of specific moments, while the direction never finds a consistent rhythm. Actor Cheadle is so good that he almost makes the movie make sense. But no actor is that good.

The movie opens on a difficult day for Davis. While stressed over deadlines to write and record some new music, he’s pressured to resolve messes in his personal life, address his dependence on chemical substances and resolve uncertainties about his future. These issues collide when a journalist – after finding his way into the musician’s Manhattan apartment with a cool spiral staircase – starts to ask questions that Davis doesn’t want to answer. Suddenly the man who can talk his way out of any challenge finds himself pushed into a corner.

Rather than follow a conventional biopic approach, Cheadle tries to make the film feel as loose as one of Davis’ improvisations. By focusing on just a couple of days in Davis’ life, the film tries to reveal the highs and lows of his routine, from wild parties where Davis entertains, to the sessions where he writes, to lonely moments when he fears. We encounter a man so afraid of himself, his music and his future that he stops himself from creating what the world loves about his work. His music becomes a way to torture himself as much as it creates a channel for him to connect with others.

We get all this because, in his performance, Cheadle hits all the right notes. He makes us believe this man can be the narcissist we see, the genius we observe, the terrified man we encounter. He reveals the difficulties that Davis brings to his work and his life, his inability to commit, his failure to resist temptation, his willingness to hurt those closest to him. And he confirms the brilliance of Davis’ work as a man who knew what sounds he could make even when he didn’t believe he could still make them.

But little of this insight comes from the pages of the script or the rhythm of the scenes. It’s all Cheadle the actor. The power of his work in front of the camera makes me wish for stronger work behind the camera. Cheadle the actor makes Miles Ahead memorable; Cheadle the writer and director make the film a disappointment filled with good intentions.

3.5 Stars

Miles Ahead

  • Content: Medium. Don Cheadle’s examination of a musician challenged by professional success and personal headaches should tell us more than it does.
  • Entertainment: Medium. Thanks to Cheadle’s magnetic screen persona, the film works better than it should.
  • Message: Medium. Because the narrative is muddled, Cheadle the actor ultimately delivers the character and saves the film.
  • Relevance: Medium. Those curious about the musician or the actor who plays him will find the movie interesting.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. After you share this film with your older teenagers, talk about what it would take for someone to make these choices.

(Miles Ahead is rated R for strong language throughout, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence. The film runs 100 minutes.)

How Movies Recreate Musicians’ Lives

As Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead reminds us, the lives of musicians can create interesting movies. Here’s a look at some of the best films about these fascinating people.

Amadeus (1984)

In a different time, a musician’s ego could still get in the way of his ability to create. Milos Forman’s thrilling adaptation of the Broadway play examines the frailties of genius that enable Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to become susceptible to the jealous manipulation of a less-talented competitor. By focusing on the musician’s desire to create, and the demons that prevent creation, Forman details a soul so troubled it can’t find the notes.

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

With a striking sense of detail, Michael Apted’s look at the life of country singer Loretta Lynn refuses to succumb to the typical look and feel of a musical biopic. Because Sissy Spacek is so willing to reveal the lady’s insecurities, and Tommy Lee Jones is so authentic in his love and support for Loretta, the movie makes us believe in the singer’s intentions regardless of the outcomes. Spacek brings the musical genius to life as she does all her own singing.

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

Yes, the movie as corny as it can be, and we never really believe that James Stewart plays the trombone. But that’s not the point. We totally believe in Stewart’s commitment to discover “the sound” in this sentimental recreation of the famed bandleader’s musical climb. Along the way we also get to hear a hit parade of Miller’s big band hits including In the Mood and String of Pearls. And we get to see Stewart again perfect his every man persona.

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

Of the many movies that recreate lives of tortured performers, the raw moments in this bio pic of singer Billie Holiday continue to ring true. Most of that authenticity comes from the brave performance from Diana Ross who moves beyond impersonating Holiday’s vocals to revealing the singer’s emotional resistance to personal or professional happiness. Years later, Ross still packs a punch in a performance that suggests a lot of unrealized potential.

Love and Mercy (2015)

For those who remember the 1960s, the soundtrack of the decade’s early years was filled with tight harmonies of a singing family from California who articulated a generation’s hopes of living with “good vibrations” while surfing in the USA. Love and Mercy maneuvers around every predictable pothole on the bio pic path by sparing us the familiar sequences of ambition, conflict and setback. And celebrating the joy of the music.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

A young group of friends discover a new way to use music to express their anger about what’s happening in their world. When their music catches fire with audiences, these kids are less than prepared for the realities of fame and fortune. From the conventions of a musical biopic director F. Gary Gray creates an important movie about the anger that racial tension can create, a cautionary tale about how easy it can be to be blind to what happens around us, a reminder that we are all responsible for how the world behaves, no matter where we live.

Thanks to the movies, we get to savor the sounds that musicians create despite their challenges. And we can forever celebrate the music. How meaningful to have these movies.